FOIA

Just what can the NSA do with information

Micky Aldridge (CC)

How many times have you thought about returning an email to someone, and realized that you couldn’t immediately find that person’s original message? Stands to reason that once you’re at that point, you end up dropping the cursor into the little search bar that’s sitting on the top of just about every email client and webmail page, started typing in the person’s name, to run a search. It’s something that just about everyone with an email account anywhere has done, and taken for granted. Now, imagine if you couldn’t do that - or you couldn’t search for a specific topic within your emails.

Well, that’s what the NSA would like to have people believe about their system. According to a report from Pro Publica, the agency can’t seem to fulfill Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that happen to include at least a single domain for the outside source of emails, and a specific time period to search for said emails.

“There’s no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately,” NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Blacker told me last week.

The system is “a little antiquated and archaic,” she added.

New Hillary email controversy perfectly describes the federal government

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No, not that email controversy. No, not that one either. This one:

In case you have a less than 3-minute attention span, I’ll summarize.

In July 2015, David Sirota of the IB Times submitted a FOIA request for Hillary Clinton’s emails from the State Dept about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. As the trade deal is a public policy and Hillary a public official partly responsible for arranging it, State agreed. He received a response that those emails would be ready for him in April 2016.

April came and went, of course, without the emails being released. One week ago, Charlotte Duckett at State followed up, saying the relevant emails had been located and are now being “prepared for review” and would be ready for release by…wait for it…November 31, 2016. Three weeks after the election.

In case you’re not familiar with the Gregorian calendar, November 31st does not exist. There are only 30 days in November.

Watchdog group sues the “most transparent administration in history” for allowing the White House to obstruct document release

President Barack Obama’s White House has interfered with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests over the release of communications with a dozen federal agencies, according to a lawsuit filed on Monday by Cause of Action, a government watchdog organization.

Cause of Action has sued ten cabinet agencies — including the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and Health and Human Services — the Internal Revenue Service, and the White House Office of Management and Budget for allowing the White House to influence the FOIA process and delay response to document requests.

“Accountable and transparent government does not involve instructing agencies to send politically sensitive records to the White House for review,” said Dan Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action, in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “The bureaucracy has violated the law by stonewalling the public’s access to documents for political reasons.”

“Cause of Action’s own investigation reveals that the White House is actually demanding access from agencies to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and Congressional document requests, as well as the documents subject to those requests, in a manner that may obstruct congressional oversight and violate the spirit of FOIA,” he added.

False: White House press secretary says Obama is the most transparent president ever

The White House isn’t just downplaying the letter from a group of journalists blasted the Obama administration’s “politically-drive suppression of the news.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in an interview on CNN, claimed that Barack Obama is the Most Transparent President™ ever:

President Obama is “absolutely” the most transparent president in history, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Sunday after the White House received a letter from signed by a dozen top journalists’ groups complaining about the administration’s policies toward the media.

“There are a number of steps that we’ve taken to give people greater insight into what’s happening at the White House,” Earnest said in an interview with CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
[…]
Earnest noted that previous administrations had “gone to the Supreme Court” to prevent the release of White House visitor information, but that the Obama administration “releases it voluntarily on the Internet on a quarterly basis.”

“Reporters for years clamored to get access to fundraisers the president hosted or attended that were hosted in private homes,” Earnest continued. “Reporters now have access to those when this president goes to a private home.”

Obama’s IRS stalling on release of emails between officials and Democratic senators

The Internal Revenue Service has stalled for nearly a year on a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee seeking all correspondence between agency officials and 13 Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and several vulnerable incuments up for reelection this year:

On May 21, 2013 the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent the IRS a Freedom of Information Act request asking for “any and all documents or records, including but not limited to electronic documents, e-mails, paper documents, photographs (electronic or hard copy), or audio files,” related to correspondence from January 1, 2009 and May 21, 2013 between thirteen different Democrat members of Congress and top IRS officials. Those officials include former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, former Commissioner Steven Miller, senior IRS official Joseph Grant and former head of tax exempt groups Lois Lerner. Members of Congress named in the request include Sen. Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Reid (D-NV), DSCC Chair Sen. Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Pryor (D-AR), Sen. Hagan (D-NC), Sen. Begich (D-AK), Sen. Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), Sen. Franken (D-MN), Sen. Warner (D-VA), Rep. Braley and Rep. Peters (D-MI).

Since that request was received by the IRS nearly one year ago, IRS Tax Law Specialists Robert Thomas and Denise Higley have asked for more time to fulfill the request six times.

Surprise!: Obama administration not even close to living up to transparency promises

Though he once promised that his administration would be the most transparent in American history, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to keep sunlight from shining, the Associated Press reports:

More often than ever, the administration censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press.
[…]
The government’s own figures from 99 federal agencies covering six years show that halfway through its second term, the administration has made few meaningful improvements in the way it releases records. In category after category - except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees - the government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.

In a year of intense public interest over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times - a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times. The Defense Department, including the NSA, and the CIA accounted for nearly all those. The Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency cited national security six times, the Environmental Protection Agency did twice and the National Park Service once.

FISA court found NSA spying program unconstitutional in 2011

Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the Electronic Fronter Foundation (EFF), the Obama Administration released an October 2011 FISA court opinion determining that the National Security Agency (NSA) violated the Fourth Amendment through one of its surveillance programs:

The Obama administration has given up more of its surveillance secrets, acknowledging that it was ordered to stop scooping up thousands of Internet communications from Americans with no connection to terrorism — a practice it says was an unintended consequence when it gathered bundles of Internet traffic connected to terror suspects.
[…]
The NSA declassified three secret court opinions showing how it revealed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that one of its surveillance programs may have collected and stored as many as 56,000 emails and other communications by ordinary Americans annually over three years. The court ruled the NSA actions unconstitutional and ordered the agency to fix the problem, which it did by creating new technology to filter out buckets of data most likely to contain U.S. emails, and then limit the access to that data — and destroy it every two years, instead of every five years, as mandated by the court for other U.S. records gathered by the NSA. The NSA still may retain Americans’ phone records and in some cases copies of their Internet traffic for five years or even longer in some circumstances.

We touched on this story yesterday, but it deserves more attention due to a few different factors.

Lerner used personal e-mail to conduct IRS business

It may have taken a backseat as other issues and legislative fights have dominated the news in recent weeks, but congressional investigations into the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party and conservative groups haven’t ended, even if President Barack Obama believes it’s a “phony scandal.”

More news has surfaced in the last week about Lois Lerner, the now-suspended IRS official at the center of congressional inquiries. On Monday, the National Review reported that Lerner may have illegally disclosed information about a conservative group to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which is a felony.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), is now seeking to obtain e-mails from Lerner’s personal account that relate to her duties at the IRS.

“Through the course of the investigation, we have learned that you sent documents related to your official duties from your official IRS e-mail account to an msn.com e-mail account labeled ‘Lois Home,’” wrote Issa and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) via a statement from the committee (the full letter wasn’t available). “This raises some serious questions concerning your use of a non-official e-mail account to conduct official business.”

Is this Transparency? Labor Dept. Wanted $1 Million to Turnover E-Mails

Obama and transparency

In a memo to department and agency heads posted on the White House website, President Barack Obama said that his administration is “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government” and noted that “[o]penness will strengthen our democracy.” But, as has too often been the case with this administration, the rhetoric hasn’t lived up to reality.

For an administration that was supposed to be the most transparent in history, it certainly does go to great lengths to hide what its doing. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been embroiled in the Climategate scandal, which revolved around former agency administrator Lisa Jackson’s use of private e-mail to conduct government business.

Another example of this pernicious secrecy emerged this week. The Associated Press tried to obtain e-mails from the Labor Department via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In what was a clear attempt to discourage the news agency from obtaining the information, the Labor Department tried to charge the AP more than $1 million (emphasis mine):

Some of President Barack Obama’s political appointees, including the Cabinet secretary for the Health and Human Services Department, are using secret government email accounts they say are necessary to prevent their inboxes from being overwhelmed with unwanted messages, according to a review by The Associated Press.

Why Does the IRS Have Its Own Movie Studio?

IRS Star Trek video

In the days leading up to the sequester and in the weeks since, Obama Administration officials tried to use scare tactics to drive public opinion in its favor. They called the cuts “draconian” and “unfair.” But this fearmongering hasn’t worked. In fact, President Obama’s approval ratings have taken a dive. The White House didn’t help its cause by canceling tours and then threatening the annual Easter Egg Roll.

There is a lot of waste in the federal budget or individual government departments that still could be cut. The latest comes from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which has spent your dollars on a horribly produced Star Trek-themed training video. CBS News filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain the video:

CBS News filed a Freedom of Information request asking for the video after the IRS earlier refused to turn over a copy to the congressional committee that oversees tax issues: House Ways and Means. According to committee Chairman Charles Boustany, Jr. (R-LA), the video was produced in the IRS’s own television studio in New Carrollton, MD. The studio may have cost taxpayers more than $4 million dollars last year alone.


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